Counting calories to lose weight. Does it work? Some people say it works alone 100%, others say it’s useless and that you should only focus on the quality of the food. Many people say it all works in a complicated way.
There are many answers. I tend to choose the most well-informed ones.
You see, to understand the answer to the question “Does counting calories work?”, you should know the whole background of information.
Besides, the topic is pretty controversial, as so many people swear that counting kcals is THE way to a slimmer body. What they don’t think about is the quality of the body they will get.
So, the BetterMe team has decided to create a FAQ on the topic of calories, how they work, calorie deficit, whether you can lose weight by counting calories only, and more.
It’s pretty long and divided into 4 parts for your convenience. So, get a notepad ready.
FAQ #1: The Terms (Calorie, Metabolism, Whats And Hows)
What Is A Calorie?
1 calorie = the amount of energy needed to warm up 1 gram of water by 1°C.
In easier terms, this is the measure of the amount of energy you get with the foods and beverages you consume. It’s also the energy your body needs to live or, more precisely, to:
- Keep the heart beating
- Think, etc.
Why do you see kcal rather than cal?
Kcal is a kilocalorie – a thousand calories (or one Calorie with an uppercase “C”). Most people use the word ‘calorie’ instead just because it’s more convenient, but when anyone is talking about calories in food, they are actually referring to kilocalories.
How Do Calories Work?
Let’s try to understand why calories are important and how they work.
Most foods and drinks contain calories, except for water. The rest contains one or more of the following macronutrients:
- Carbohydrates (or carbs)
Each contains a certain amount of calories:
- 1 gram of protein – 4 calories
- 1 gram of fat – 9 calories
- 1 gram of carbs – 4 calories
- Bonus: 1 gram of alcohol contains 7 calories
When your body digests the food and drinks you’ve consumed, it breaks it down, using the calories it contains to either build tissue or fulfill its needs at the moment.
Digesting the food you eat also requires calories. Protein needs more energy to be processed, while fat needs less (19). The two differ in TEF (thermic effect of food), hence the difference.
The largest amount of calories is used to enable your body to function, providing the brain, heart, lungs, and kidneys with sufficient energy (8). You may be familiar with a thing called basal metabolic rate (BMR) or resting metabolic rate (RMR). This is the amount of energy your body needs to remain alive and maintain all the complex processes.
The rest of the calories energize your physical activity, including workouts and daily routines (basically every move of yours throughout the day). This number is individual for everyone because people have different body compositions, daily activities, workout routines, more or less physical jobs, etc.
What Is Metabolism And Why Is It Important?
In brief, metabolism is the amount of calories your body spends while resting. This depends on many factors, including your body composition. Muscle tissue burns more energy than fat even at rest. That’s why it’s important to include at least a bit of strength training into your life to increase or maintain the amount of muscles you have.
Thus, you can burn more calories by just sitting on the couch!
In terms of calorie restriction, the news isn’t that bright. Traditional weight loss is a stress for your body, so it tries to compensate by slowing some processes in your body to spend less energy and have you regain the weight you lost (15).
That means it’s a good idea to only reduce your intake by 250 kcal instead of 500 to make sure your body doesn’t feel so stressed out. You can add more calories to the deficit by slightly increasing physical activity. It might take longer to lose weight this way, but you are more likely to keep it off.
Whether you’re looking to simply pep up your fitness routine, jazz up your diet with mouth-watering low-calorie recipes or want to get your act together and significantly drop that number on your scale – BetterMe app has got you covered! Improve your body and revamp your life with us!
FAQ #2: Calories And Weight Loss (Deficit, Calorie Quality, Etc.)
Do You Need A Calorie Deficit For Weight Loss?
A calorie deficit occurs when you consume fewer kcal than you lose.
Once your body fulfills all its needs, including your daily physical activity, it stores the remainder of the energy for the future as:
- Glycogen (a type of carb) in liver and muscles
- As fat on your hips, belly, cheeks, and other places throughout the body
This brings us to the well-known point that if you consume more than you burn, you gain weight (16).
Logically, if you get less energy than needed, your body will have to use those deposits to maintain normal function. When you lose weight wisely, the fat storage will decrease, making you look slimmer. That said, if you get too dramatic with your approach and restrict food heavily while engaging in heavy physical activity, your body will also use protein to compensate, which will cause muscle loss (3).
Are All Calories The Same?
In general, 100 kcal remains 100 kcal, no matter if you eat sweets or strawberries. Calories are a measure, after all.
However, when we’re talking about your health, not all calories are the same. This is where quality comes in, often becoming more important than quantity. Many foods contain the same amount of energy, but their nutritional value may be vastly different.
Besides, various foods affect your hormone levels, appetite, hunger, and metabolism differently (11, 14). For example, if you eat 300 calories of doughnuts, you may feel hungry within an hour because there’s a lot of sugar and carbs there. Substitute it with a 300-calorie nutritious meal, and you’ll feel full for hours due to the protein and fiber content.
What Affects Your Body’s Ability To Process Calories?
There are 3 main factors influencing how your body processes calories:
There are trillions of various microorganisms in your intestines. A certain predominance of some bacteria may impact the amount of calories and nutrients you can absorb from food. That’s why it’s crucial to feed your beneficial bacteria with prebiotic fiber.
Genetic predispositions, environment, and behaviors all impact the rate of metabolism.
What You Eat
The quality of food you eat makes a difference. For example, highly processed meals may lead to excess calorie intake (22).
FAQ #3: The Pros And Cons Of Counting Calories
Why Does Counting Calories Work In General?
How does counting calories work? Why does it work?
Basically, this approach helps you track the amount of food you consume to keep the balance between how much you eat and spend in a day. Tracking these measures has proven to help people lose weight (23, 17).
Here’s why counting calories works in general:
- By getting a real picture of what’s going on, you can understand your eating behaviors better and see where you have to be more cautious. That said, you don’t need an exact number to become aware of potential behavioral issues.
- The data you get (if you’re consistent) gives you a starting point. From there, you can calculate how many calories you have to adjust by to start losing weight.
- Daily monitoring can help you see the progress and adjust your eating behavior at all times.
So, counting calories can be a useful approach, but it doesn’t have to be the major one.
Why Do Some People Think Calories Don’t Matter At All?
Trends change all the time. It’s understood that you need to create a certain energy deficit to lose weight. Despite this, some people still think that how much you eat is unimportant compared to what you eat.
Studies which show that low-carb diets make people shed more pounds fuel this opposition (2). But using studies focusing on weight loss only doesn’t help. Low-carb diets are more difficult to be consistent with, so there’s room for debate.
Yes, the quality of food you eat is crucial.
But here’s why tracking how much you eat is also important:
We’re Bad At Eye-Measuring Our Portions
Seeing a doughnut and thinking that it’s probably about 100 kcal may leave 200+ calories out of your sight. In addition, we tend to think we move more than we do (21).
So, we may think we spend 500 calories more every day than we do, while in reality, we may eat 500 kcal more than we think.
Many Studies Measure Total Weight Loss Instead Of Fat Loss
Continuing the topic of low-carb diets, the total weight loss may consist mostly of water. When you don’t eat carbs, you burn stored carbs first, and they are stored together with water in your body (10).
- Low-Carb Diets Are Higher In Protein And Fat
Protein and fat make you feel full for a longer time. This theoretically means you can eat less in a day, which limits your calorie intake (18). This, again gets us back to the point that the amount of calories consumed in a day is important.
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What Are The Drawbacks Of Counting Calories For Weight Loss?
Does counting calories work for weight loss? Yes.
Is it for everyone? No.
The approach may trigger an eating disorder in people with a history of such conditions due to building an unhealthy relationship with food. Many people with different types of EDs reported using an online calorie calculator; many think it was a contributor to their condition (13).
So, if you count calories and feel guilty about eating slightly more or think you could even eat less, it’s better to choose another option.
For example, intuitive eating. It takes some time to learn to listen to your body, but studies show it works, becoming a great alternative for people with a history of ED (12).
There are more drawbacks, including:
It’s Not Always Practical
Imagine you go to a friend’s birthday party, to a dinner with family, or on a date. How will you count calories properly if you don’t know how much of each ingredient there’s exactly in what you eat and drink?
Thinking about it will remove the elements of relaxation and joy from your evening.
You Ignore The Needs Of Your Body
Ignoring when your body is telling you that it requires (or doesn’t require) food is one of the worst things we learn as children. Parents tell us to eat everything or we can’t go out with friends, for example. Later on, we may make the relationships worse by diminishing what our body needs. Yet, we want it to look and behave a certain way.
This is an issue many of us still haven’t fixed.
This Doesn’t Resolve The Initial Issue
You may count calories for some time to get temporary results, not realizing they are temporary. Plus, many people don’t go deeper and try to understand why they are at an uncomfortable weight. It may be a physical or mental health concern. So, by finding relief in counting every calorie, you may just sabotage the resolution of a major health issue.
You Ignore The Nutritional Value Of The Food
Choosing to eat an apple instead of a whole meal will reduce a lot of the needed nutrients from that day. As a result, you may overeat later and feel guilty, plus you might cause your body quality to deteriorate.
FAQ #4: The Right Ways To Measure Food And Lose Weight
I Want To Measure How Much I Eat. What Should I Do?
You can use:
- Mobile apps
- Kitchen scales
- Portion size estimates
Using the latter, you can measure what you eat in:
But please, remember that quality of food also matters and nothing terrible will happen if you eat a little bit more. Maintain a healthy ratio between the amount of calories you eat and spend.
You can choose to eat smaller portions, choose foods that require your body to spend more calories while digesting, and fill your diet with healthy nutrients (micro and macro), as well as fiber, to feel full longer.
What Are Some Other Weight Loss And Management Recommendations?
Here are some more weight loss and management tips for you:
- Exercise – engage in physical activities you enjoy. It can be a walk in a park every day where you have a goal of, say, 10,000 steps. It can also be a full workout or dancing.
- Sleep well – sleep for 8 hours at night in a dark cool room. Try not to use gadgets an hour before going to sleep. Consider meditating before sleep to improve the quality of your nighttime snooze.
- Read about your medication – if you take medication, talk to your doctor about whether it causes weight gain or appetite increase.
- Manage your stress – daily routines, meditation, breathing practices, etc. will help you keep your stress levels lower.
- Consult with professionals – if you feel you can’t do it yourself, consult a registered dietitian. Make sure it’s someone who will address all of your goals.
So, does counting calories work to lose weight? Yes, but maybe not for everyone.
You have to also learn:
- About the difference between protein, fat, and carbs and how much you need.
- To listen to your body and its needs.
- To find a practical way to measure your food.
- To create a plan you can stay consistent with.
I wouldn’t recommend taking calorie-counting as the basis for your weight loss journey. Learn about calorie deficit, don’t take too much off your daily intake, throw in some good sleep and effective (not too strenuous) workouts, and find a way that is comfortable for you.
If it’s measuring cups, fine. If it’s limiting sweets and ‘empty’ calories, please! Just make sure that you don’t focus on it too much, making it the main focus of your life. There will be a time when you’re out with friends and asking the waiter how many cups of each ingredient they use for a dish you order won’t be the best thing to do.
Find a way to implement the knowledge and recommendations presented above to become and remain healthy. A beautiful, lean body will be a sweet bonus result.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
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